SALEM — A Christian-oriented camp on property formerly occupied by followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is hoping to expand by 1,500 more beds but needs state lawmakers’ approval to do so.
The property, a former cattle ranch straddling Wasco and Jefferson counties about an hour north of Madras, was converted by Rajneesh, a guru from India, and thousands of his followers into a religious enclave.
Today, it’s the Washington Family Ranch, owned and operated by Young Life, a Christian nonprofit that operates camps for middle school, high school and college kids from across the nation. The camp was donated to the group in the 1990s after Rajneeshpuram was abandoned and fell into foreclosure.
“The background is important in that when the Rajneeshees created this illegal city ... their infrastructure was set up to handle 5,000 people full-time,” said Linda Swearingen, the Redmond-based lobbyist pushing the bill.
“It was an abandoned city. There were 140-plus buildings, hotels, stores.”
The 62,000-acre camp is looking to expand by an additional 1,500 overnight beds. Camp officials have identified 4,000 acres where they would like to expand. Within those 4,000 acres, the footprint of the actual camps would be four different 100-acre sites.
“They are looking out 20-30 years,” Swearingen said.
Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, is a chief sponsor of House Bill 3098; Reps. Jason Conger, R-Bend, and Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, have also signed on.
Jon Jinings of the state Department of Lands said the land is zoned for farm and ranch activity, but it’s an “unusual situation” because of its past use.
The ranch also stretches between both Jefferson and Wasco counties. Swearingen said the Legislature needs to give the counties “a pathway” to expand. But she said local authorities would have final approval.
“We’re asking the Legislature to grant Wasco and Jefferson counties a process for us to expand. One does not exist right now. ... Young Life would still bring in a site plan to both counties,” she said.
Jefferson County Commissioner Mike Ahern is not keen on the idea.
“They always talk about how much money they throw in to support our county. I’ve never seen anyone from that place. ... They aren’t quite as big community partners as they seem to think they are,” Ahern said.
He said he will wait to see what the Legislature does.
“To me, it just makes a mockery of the state’s land use laws,” Ahern said.
Swearingen noted that the Legislature does not generally like to grant “carve-out” bills, which only benefit one entity. But she believes the legislation has a good chance since it benefits a youth camp.
“It’s not a commercial or residential development; we’re expanding a youth camp that generally has people there four months out of the year and then is mothballed,” she said.